Travel Story 

Memories of the 1972 Sapporo Olympics

A look back at the future?

We didn’t set out to go to the 1972 Winter Olympics, but like the 2010 Olympics if the Whistler bid goes through, we just happened to be there. Depending on your point of view, a bonus or a burden to be enjoyed or suffered by those of us who live in ski resorts.

Our family moved to Japan in July 1971, occupied a small, traditional Japanese house in the Miyanomori district on the outskirts of Sapporo, acquired a car, and settled in to the daily routine of living and working in a friendly, fascinating, but very different culture than we had left behind in B.C. By September we had ceased to be curiosities, though we were often joined on the street by strangers who wanted to practice their English. I commuted six days a week to Hokkaido University where I was collaborating with one of the professors on some volcano research. My wife, Betty, shopped in the local market and, with her attempts at "kitchen Japanese," drew gales of laughter from the shopkeepers. Our three blonde daughters, dressed in school uniforms like all the other kids, attended the local Japanese school. We were simply accepted as the "gaijin" family that lived up by the 70-metre ski jump.

By December there was enough snow to ski at Moiwayama, only minutes from our house. Slightly farther from home a modern gondola whisked us up to some challenging runs at Teine, where each skier was greeted at the top with a bow and a cheery "konnichiwa" from a young woman clad in traditional kimono and obe. The hills were surprisingly uncrowded.

By January things began to change. Signs bearing the Olympic rings and "Sapporo 72" proclaimed the coming of the Winter Games. Work that had been going on for months behind the scenes began to spill out into the open. A host of drab construction sites were suddenly transformed into glittering venues where the athletes would compete and take part in the opening and closing ceremonies. Despite environmental protests, a downhill course complete with new lift was built from scratch on Mount Eniwa in Shikotsu-Toya National Park. The streets of Sapporo became a gathering place for a multitude of other "gaijins" speaking not just English, but Italian, German, French and a chatter of other unidentified languages. At one point we ran into Nancy Greene in a downtown Sapporo shop. The skiing world, it seemed, was coming to Japan.

Two weeks before the Games, concern over the lack of snow became a minor panic. The army was mobilized to truck in snow from the mountains and spread it on the 70- and 90-metre jumps. For several days the snow-laden lorries trundled past our house. The young soldiers who shovelled it onto the slope were convinced that my daughters were famous Olympic athletes and, to everyone’s delight, insisted on getting autographs.

A week before the Games an enormous dump of snow fell and the army was called in again, this time to boot-pack the runs. Nothing was left to chance.

A few days before the opening ceremonies traffic patterns throughout the city were altered to accommodate rapid bus travel between venues. Huge park-and-ride lots were cordoned off and fleets of shiny buses bearing the Olympic rings were assembled to move the crowds. Because Miyanomori was the ski jumping site our entire neighbourhood was cordoned off. Only buses, authorized taxis and resident vehicles, including ours, were given passes to go through the checkpoint.

My memory of the actual Games, filtered through the events of almost 30 intervening years, is spotty at best. I recall watching the Italians erupt into frenzied cheering when Gustav Thoeni won the GS, and watching the sheer unabashed joy of the Swiss when 17-year-old Marie-Theres Nadig shot out of nowhere to win both the downhill and the GS. We were there when Ard Schenk took three speed skating events and cheered for Karen Magnuson, whose silver in figure skating was the only medal won by a Canadian at the Sapporo Olympics.

But mostly I remember the crowds – the "Olympic groupies" who were there for the party. The plump middle-aged woman in her bizarre flag-dress, a female caricature of Uncle Sam, clutching a huge stuffed Hokkaido bear, waving a tiny American flag and announcing to anyone who would listen that this was her sixth Olympics.

For the Souther family the most memorable part of the Games was the 70-metre jump – not because any of us are Nordic skiers, but because our house in Miyanomori was virtually in the middle of the action. We invited our Japanese friends, laid in a supply of sushi and sake, removed the rice-paper shutters from the windows and settled back to watch. With binoculars we could see the subtle movement of white-gloved hands, like ailerons on a landing plane, adjusting the glide-path for maximum distance. The Japanese jumpers were obviously doing well and as each one landed a good jump our guests cheered and uttered excited variations of "soo des."

When the jumping was over and the combination of style and distance was calculated the Japanese jumpers had won all three medals – first, second and third. Our house literally erupted. There was cheering, singing and toasts to everyone and everything. Otherwise dignified university professors made delightful fools of themselves, until the sake took its inevitable toll and an "authorized taxi" was called to see our guests safely home.

And then it was over. We gathered up the empty sake bottles. The checkpoints came down. Work crews began tearing down some of the venues. The lift on the downhill was dismantled and the runs reforested. Within a week the tacky Olympic souvenirs had disappeared from the shops and were replaced by equally tacky trinkets for the usual tourist market.

Was it worth it? I put the question to my good friend Kenzo, now retired from Hokkaido University but still living in Sapporo. He was among those who opposed cutting the downhill run on Mount Eniwa and to opening that treasured wilderness area to the crowds of Olympic spectators. Twenty-six years later, in 1998, the Sapporo experience was used to discourage the cutting of a new run in Joshin National Park for the Nagano Winter Games. The race came off OK on an existing run and the park was spared any environmental damage. Now 30 years later Kenzo reports, sadly, that Mount Eniwa still bears the scars of that brief, 1972 encounter with international sport.

But we both agree: it was a hell of a party!

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